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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Bill Gates unplugged

(Fortune Magazine) -- Let me tell you about Bill Gates. He is different from you and me. First off, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft has always been something of a utopian. In his mind, even the world's knottiest problems can be solved if you apply enough IQ. Accordingly, Gates, who has been spotted on Seattle freeways reading a book while driving himself to the office, covets knowledge. It's as if he's still trying to make up for dropping out of Harvard, as he spends just about any spare waking minute reading, studying science texts, or watching university courses on DVD.

Some say his wealth and famous opportunism are reminiscent of the robber barons of yore. Yet here is a man who has set a goal to eradicate malaria. Rich as he is - his net worth is an estimated $50 billion - you can't call the man greedy when he has pledged to give back to humanity all but a tiny fraction of 1% of that fortune.

These traits only begin to explain why Gates, at 52, has chosen to redirect his efforts toward more altruistic pursuits. On July 1 he will step away from an operating role at Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) to devote more time to philanthropy and other interests. The shift has been on his mind for nearly a decade, and it reflects some important experiences over his lifetime.

Much is expected

Like that seminal time back in 1968 when his mother, Mary, spearheaded an effort to install a used Teletype terminal in his school so that her already autodidactic junior high schooler could teach himself how to program a mainframe. There was his epiphany when he first met fellow billionaire Warren Buffett in 1991 - and realized that it quite literally pays to follow your curiosity beyond your own area of expertise.

And there's the poignant letter his mother wrote in 1993 to his fiancée, Melinda French, cluing her in to the Gates family credo: "From those to whom much has been given, much is expected." (Mary Gates would die the next year.) That letter, in turn, led to the self-conscious irony in the slogan he and his wife hit upon for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: All lives have equal value.

The genes, the IQ, the life of privilege, and the noblesse oblige have always been there. Given that background, it makes sense that he would turn his attention and wealth to the greater good. But there is a more selfish motive in the "retirement" of Bill Gates, and one that no one should begrudge him. For the first time since he quit Harvard to start Microsoft 33 years ago, Gates is going to have the time to indulge what his father calls his "world-class curiosity."

Gates' closest friends wonder how he will exploit this new freedom. "He doesn't know for sure where his mind is going to go," says Buffett, who has donated the bulk of his own $45 billion fortune to the Gates Foundation, largely because he believes his money will be used wisely and effectively. "Not only will it be fascinating, but I think it's going to be, for me, very satisfying to watch."

"He is one of the greatest business minds of all time, and you don't just shut that off," adds Nathan Myhrvold, the former head of Microsoft's R&D labs, who still kicks around ideas with his former boss via e-mail almost daily. "My guess is we have not seen the last business idea out of Bill Gates."

Setting a curious mind free

Bill Gates 2.0 will have three offices: one at Microsoft in Redmond, a second about 15 miles away at the Gates Foundation in downtown Seattle, and a third almost exactly equidistant between the other two (and much closer to home). In typical hyper-systematic fashion, Gates has allocated blocks of time to each location: a day in Redmond, two at the foundation, and two at the personal office, which he suspects will be his real "center of gravity." There will be a lot of overlap among his three roles. That's because the guy's greatest pleasure seems to be in finding connections among things he's interested in.

The biggest change, of course, will be in his workload at Microsoft, which will drop drastically. He'll remain chairman and weigh in here and there. "Other than board meetings and consulting on projects like Internet search technology, the only things I'll do are some company visits when I'm in developing countries," he says. "Or if there's some special award for someone at a company meeting, I'll come and present it. But that's about it." (For more on how Microsoft is coping with Gates' retirement, see the accompanying story.)

The opposite will be true at the foundation. Gates' official title, which he shares with his wife and father, is co-chair, but his real role will be as the organization's chief strategic thinker. And Gates is teeming with ideas, especially about things scientific. Unlike most benefactors, he doesn't merely want to eradicate malaria and AIDS; he wants to understand the nuances of immunology. He wants to learn about what happens on a molecular scale when a plant's genes are altered to improve hardiness. He insists on knowing the precise legal reasons women in developing countries are robbed of their estates when they become widowed.

"Here's how Bill thinks," explains Myhrvold. "He is always interested in looking at big systems in the world and understanding them at every level that he can. As an example, I got this e-mail from him today as part of this whole discussion on corn prices and crop yields and shortages resulting from ethanol production, and at the end Bill says, 'I really need to understand phosphates more.'"

Another big part of his new job will be to make more public appearances and do more arm-twisting of governments and corporations to do more for the world's poor. "I'm uniquely able to reach out to the big companies, to ask them not just to write checks but to offer more of their innovative power," Gates says. "There's a big category of my time for talking to drug companies, cellphone companies, banks, and technology companies, as well as talking with other people who are lucky enough to have superbig fortunes about how they want to give those back to society."

That does not translate to fundraising - on the contrary, the foundation plans to exhaust its $100 billion endowment by the end of the century. Gates is talking about setting an example for the plutocracy. Jeff Raikes, the former Microsoft executive who was just appointed CEO of the foundation, thinks that effort could have as much impact on the world as the works of the foundation itself: "He has an incredible opportunity to help shape the thinking of other multibillionaires by getting them to think about the process, the structure, the best practices."

Gates takes pains to stress that even in his more active capacity, "I'm not the CEO of the foundation. Jeff will be the CEO." That's simply not what he wants to do with his time. "Even today people at the foundation get lots of e-mail from me, but after Sept. 1 they'll get a lot more, because now I'll be able to take courses, read more, meet more smart people, and have better ideas."

Mellowing with age

In his younger years, Gates' gimlet-eyed idealism manifested itself in stubbornness and self-righteousness, an unusual boldness, and a tendency not to suffer fools. Most people who have worked closely with him can recall more than one instance in which he reacted to a comment or idea by standing up and hissing, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life."

He hasn't lost that inclination toward intellectual arrogance. But in his philanthropic work, the shoe is sometimes on the other foot. He's not, after all, a microbiologist or a geneticist. Moreover, with age and maturity, Gates has become much better able to acknowledge what he doesn't know or when he's wrong.

"The classic CEO needs to be right, or rather needs to appear to be right more than he needs to actually be right - and that's not Bill," says his pal Myhrvold. "Lewis and Clark were lost most of the time. If your idea of exploration is to always know where you are and to be inside your zone of competence, you don't do wild new shit. You have to be confused, upset, think you're stupid. If you're not willing to do that, you can't go outside the box."

And that explains the third dimension of Bill Gates' new life - giving that "world-class curiosity" some room to run. His reading and learning have always been systematic. It's his nature. His father and sisters recall how young Bill would refuse to leave his room to come to the dinner table because he was too busy "thinking." But for many years, as he built Microsoft, his field of vision was of necessity rather narrow. One of the most important experiences that jostled him out of his single-mindedness was his first meeting with Buffett, on July 5, 1991. As Gates tells the story:

My mom called me at the office to come out to Hood Canal for a Fourth of July barbecue because she wanted me to meet Warren Buffett. And I said, "Mom, I'm working." But she insisted. So I took a helicopter so I could spend my couple of hours there and then get back quickly and work on software.

Then I met Warren, and I thought, "Oh, wow, this guy isn't just about buying and selling stocks and businesses. He is thinking about how the world works." And he asked me questions that I always wanted somebody to ask me, about why hadn't IBM (IBM, Fortune 500) been able to do what we had done, and how software gets priced, and why does one company have a defensible position. He wanted to understand the dynamics of the industry. To me it was way far away from, "What is your company worth?"

Then he explained to me about how Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) had not only changed things in its business, but how it had an effect on newspapers because they thought of their advertising differently than individual local stores had. And he talked about how banking really worked in terms of credit risk. The whole time all I could think was, "Hey, I'll be smarter about running Microsoft after I talk to this guy." And so I stayed the whole day.

Ever since then, Gates has tried to make more time to broaden his knowledge, and his capacity to absorb ideas has served Microsoft and the foundation well. But now reading, learning, and blue-sky brainstorming will be considered an integral part of his job description, and no doubt they will yield something.

Think of his third office, the one equidistant from Microsoft and the foundation, as the billionaire-adult equivalent of his own room. It's a place for him to spend time exploring his own ideas, and occasionally trying to find an appropriate entity to pursue them, whether it be Microsoft R&D or someone at the foundation or one of the foundation's many corporate and nonprofit partners. He'll focus on ideas related to his philanthropy, but he also will spend a lot of time with the staff of Ph.D.s and inventors at Intellectual Ventures (IV for short), Nathan Myhrvold's Seattle-based skunkworks for discovering patentable new technologies. Previously IV hosted brainstorming sessions for foundation scientists, and Gates is an informal member of a group of IV partners and investors with more general interests that meets regularly. He plans to participate even more frequently after July 1.

"I'm not going to create a company," Gates vows. "The foundation is the top priority. But there are some other things that I might help along. The scientific brainstorming with Nathan's group has led to a new nuclear energy startup, and I'm a funder and advisor to that thing. It won't be a huge amount of time, but the truth is, cheap energy that's environmentally friendly is a breakthrough that is more important for the poor than the rich. And the poor need fertilizer, more reliable seeds, and better agriculture too. They can't cut back their eating, because that's called starvation. So I'm investing in that."

Myhrvold loves the irony of it all: "It's so funny: Here's a guy who never went to class when his poor dad was paying the Harvard tuition, and now the sheer love of learning has sucked him back in, hard-core. It's not like he needs a job. It's not like he's thinking, 'Oh, that would look good on my résumé.'"

His place in history

It's too early, of course, to judge the legacy of Bill Gates. He's only 52. His kids aren't even out of elementary school. And he has only just stepped away from Microsoft, a company that once put IBM in its place, and which some would say is the most significant company to come along since General Electric (GE, Fortune 500).

Nor do we really know what - or even whether - Gates thinks of his place in history. As outgoing Gates Foundation CEO Patty Stonesifer puts it, "The Gateses by nature believe that the unexamined life is the one that's worth living. They don't like to talk about themselves. It's all about rational responsibility, not grand idealism."

Buffett, who knows him as well as anyone, says the notoriously competitive Gates will have to find new ways to judge his accomplishments rather than by market share or in dollars. "He'll be competing with his own standards," Buffett says. "In the end, he is going to want people to look at the Gates Foundation 100 years from now and say, 'This guy did it the way it should have been done.'"

With all he did at Microsoft, Gates has a tough act to follow. "Bringing personal computing to billions has totally changed the world, and it's changed it, net-net, way for the better," says Myhrvold. "So even before you look at what his foundation has done for Africa or for the poor, he's already done more for the good of the world than essentially anyone else in our lifetimes."

Melinda Gates isn't at all surprised by Bill's transformation from feared empire builder to enlightened philanthropist. "I think the foundation, because it's not all about business and competition, allows other dimensions of Bill's personality to come out," she says. "He's incredibly funny and has an unbelievably wry sense of humor. He also can be very emotional when he sees the pathetic living conditions of so many people. He's a genuinely nice guy. I think more of what I see at home and what we see inside the foundation will come out. That will be a really nice thing for him and for the world."

To which her husband would likely say, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life."

Just kidding. To top of page

Photographer documents spy satellites

BERKELEY, California -- For most people, photographing something that isn't there might be tough. Not so for Trevor Paglen.

His shots of 189 secret spy satellites are the subject of a new exhibit -- despite the fact that, officially speaking, the satellites don't exist. The Other Night Sky, on display at the University of California at Berkeley Art Museum through September 14, is only a small selection from the 1,500 astrophotographs Paglen has taken thus far.

In taking these photos, Paglen is trying to draw a metaphorical connection between modern government secrecy and the doctrine of the Catholic Church in Galileo's time.

"What would it mean to find these secret moons in orbit around the earth in the same way that Galileo found these moons that shouldn't exist in orbit around Jupiter?" Paglen says.

Satellites are just the latest in Paglen's photography of supposedly nonexistent subjects. To date, he's snapped haunting images of various military sites in the Nevada deserts, "torture taxis" (private planes that whisk people off to secret prisons without judicial oversight) and uniform patches from various top-secret military programs.

The nearly vertical streak in this image shows a satellite called Keyhole 12-3 crossing the sky near the constellation of Scorpio.

Photo: Trevor Paglen

While all of Paglen's projects are the result of meticulous research, he's also the first to admit that his photos aren't necessarily revelatory. That's by design. Like the blurry abstractions of his super-telephoto images showing secret military installations in Nevada, the tiny blips of satellites streaking across the night sky in his new series of photos are meant more as reminders rather than as documentation.

"I think that some of the earliest ideas in the modern period were actually from astronomy," Paglen explains. "You look at Galileo: He goes up and points his telescope up at Jupiter and finds out, hey, Jupiter has these moons."

More significant than the discovery itself, Paglen says, was the idea that anyone with a telescope could verify it and see the same exact thing that Galileo saw -- an idea Paglen is trying to re-create in his own photographs.

"It really was analogous to a certain kind of promise of democracy," says Paglen, who sees a similar anti-authoritarian premise running through his own work.

Paglen says his most recent project is the culmination of close to two years of trial-and-error experimentation with astrophotography, untold hours of fieldwork and analysis, an ongoing collaboration with amateur astronomers, and many nights in his Berkeley backyard and at California's Mono Lake.

"Lacrosse/Onyx II Passing Through Draco (USA 69)" shows the transit of another surveillance satellite.

Photo: Trevor Paglen

To capture his images, the researcher and "experimental geographer" employs a motorized mount with various combinations of telescopes and digital and large-format film cameras. Paglen uses spy-satellite data compiled by Ted Molczan -- a renowned amateur astronomer profiled by Wired magazine in 2006 -- to predict where a given "black satellite" will be in the sky. Then he decides how he wants to compose the image.

"I'll find where a star will be in the compositional plane," he says. "Then I'll use one telescope, which is attached to a webcam, to focus on that star."

With the help of a computer program that controls the mount of the telescope and keeps it focused on the heavenly body, Paglen says he can get the telescope to swivel with the Earth's rotation.

He then uses another telescope attached to a high-end digital camera for his deep-sky shots, similar to the rig he used for his desert shots.

"I'll see the satellite in the sky, kind of know where it's going to be in the frame, then I'll open the shutter and take a long exposure of the satellite passing through."

Paglen's initial interest in the government's so-called "black projects" took shape while combing through U.S. Geological Survey archives of satellite prison photos in 2002. He noticed that many of the photo frames of prison sites were missing or, in some cases, heavily edited.

"I thought: What the hell is this? We still have blank spots on maps? We've mapped the whole structure of the cosmos and the human genome, so what's this all about?" Paglen said.

Eventually, those blank spots led Paglen to other covert subjects and turned a hobby into a full-time job -- one with a decidedly political stance.

"For a time, people were getting arrested for photographing the Brooklyn Bridge," Paglen notes. "So to me, what it meant to do photography also changed. There was a new kind of politics to it -- something that was very aggressive and dangerous -- and a presumption that it would reveal some kind of truth or evidence."

Ultimately, the satellite photos are an attempt to critique that attitude. While the budget for black military operations has more than doubled in the last 10 years and the government continues to espouse the virtues of secrecy, it can't prevent interested amateur astronomers from calculating the orbital paths of spy satellites.

"The National Reconnaissance Office cannot classify Kepler's laws of planetary motion," Paglen says. "They just work ... and they're unbelievably accurate."

Regenerating Lost Cartilage

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Growing cartilage: A cartilage cell grows on a textured surface coated with carbon nanotubes.
Credit: Thomas Webster

The key to coaxing cells to regenerate might be to make things a little rough for them. Thomas Webster, a bioengineer at Brown University, has been developing implantable materials with nanoscale textures to mimic the roughness of living tissues.

Now, his team has found that cartilage cells can adhere to and grow more densely on a surface covered with carbon nanotubes, particularly when they are also exposed to electrical stimulation. Webster believes that surfaces incorporating carbon nanotubes, which are not only textured but are also electrically conductive, could be a promising strategy for designing cartilage implants.

Cartilage has limited ability to heal itself, so loss or injury to the cushioning tissue is a major health problem. Many research labs have developed materials that mimic the properties of cartilage, as well as scaffolds that can be seeded with cartilage cells outside the body and then implanted at the site of cartilage loss. But one of the key problems is getting a patient's native cartilage, a spongy and rather inert material that lacks its own blood supply, to attach to and integrate with an implant.

To construct a more cell-friendly surface, Webster's team used carbon nanotubes, which have a rough surface and also readily conduct electricity. The researchers mixed the nanotubes into sheets of polycarbonate urethane, an FDA-approved polymer. When they cultured cartilage cells on these sheets, the cells grew more densely on the roughened surface versus on a smooth polycarbonate surface.

Cells grew even faster when the nanotubes were electrically stimulated, although it's not clear why. "Most people believe it's changing the membrane potential of cells," Webster says, which would increase the number of calcium ions--an important cellular signal--flowing into the cell.

Why do cells seem to like rough surfaces? Webster believes that the nanostructures change the surface properties of a material, helping it attract proteins that cells stick to. His work creating a nanostructured surface for bone implants has been licensed by a startup company called Nanovis, which hopes to take it into human trials. Webster's team has also shown that cells of vascular tissue can adhere better to nano-textured surfaces, which could be used to design better vascular stents. He believes that carbon nanotubes could be incorporated into materials used to make cartilage implants.

But Jennifer Elisseeff, a tissue engineer at Johns Hopkins University, is skeptical that the current study, in which cartilage cells were grown in a single layer, has any relevance yet for cartilage regeneration. "Cartilage really needs a 3-D scaffold," she explains, and it can be difficult to translate how cells behave on a flat surface to how they behave in a three-dimensional tissue. Webster's team is currently examining whether cells grown in this way are functionally active as cartilage cells and whether they can be combined into multiple layers.

M3 with Double Clutch transmission tested

The rapid-shifting, seven-speed automated manual is as quick, but no quicker than the base six-speed.

Could this be the beginning of the end for the manual transmission? BMW’s seven-speed, double-clutch automated manual transmission is now available in the M3. This gearbox shifts quicker than possible with a manual and also has a livable, smooth-shifting automatic mode.

You already know we love BMW’s latest incarnation of its marvelous M3, this time with a mammoth, 414-hp V-8. As displayed by its ferocious test numbers and three comparison-test victories, it’s simply one of the most fun and involving cars currently on sale.

But until now, all the cars we’ve driven have been equipped with a six-speed manual as we’ve waited for the brand new seven-speed, double-clutch automated manual developed with Getrag to arrive. (BMW calls it M DCT, for M Double-Clutch Transmission with Drivelogic.)

First Double-Clutch Transmission That Can Handle 9000 RPM

Available as a $2700 option on all M3 coupes, sedans, and convertibles, M DCT is the first double-clutch transmission that can handle engine speeds up to—thank-you BMW—a screaming 9000 rpm. M DCT adds about 45 pounds, according to BMW; our 3630-pound test car weighed in 30 pounds heavier than our last manual M3 coupe.

The M DCT gearbox uses two oil-cooled, wet multi-disc clutches and operates much like other transmissions of this type, such as VW/Audi’s DSG/S tronic. One clutch engages the even gears, and the other handles the odds plus reverse. Since only one clutch is engaged at any given time, the transmission anticipates and preselects the next ratio; a gear change simply requires one clutch to release while the other engages, which means the M DCT transmission can shift quicker than a manual transmission, and it drastically reduces the power interruption between gears. Overall, first gear with M DCT is actually slightly taller than in the manual, but the rest of the ratios are shorter.

The double-clutch arrangement also enables quicker and smoother shifting than in single-clutch automated manuals, such as BMW’s own SMG found in the previous M3 and the current M5 and M6. If you’ve ever driven an SMG car, you know what we’re talking about. Even with various iterations and improvements, the current seven-speed unit found in the M5 and M6 leaves large, head-bobbing gaps in power between shifts, rendering it somewhere between annoying and unusable in full-automatic mode.

As with SMG, M DCT has a staggering 11 settings—five in automatic (D mode) and six in manual (S mode)—that determine how aggressive the shifts are, with the most brutal manual setting only available with the stability control off. Settings of four or higher mean satisfying throttle blips accompany downshifts, while one through three yield nearly imperceptible gear changes. Manual shifting is accomplished via steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles (right for upshifts, left for downshifts) or the shift lever on the center console.

Thankfully Blessed With Superb Launch Control

In case you ever get your hands on an M3 equipped with M DCT, you need to know how to experience one of the best features: launch control. Omitted from U.S. versions of the M5 and M6, launch control is thankfully now included in the M3.

With stability control switched off and the transmission in the most aggressive setting, simply push and hold the shift lever forward and a checkered flag appears in the dash display to let you know you’re in launch-control mode. At that point just flat-foot the throttle and the revs rise and hold. Using the cruise control stalk, that rpm hold point can be adjusted between 4600 and 6100 rpm to tailor the launch to the particular surface. With your foot still flat on the floor, let go of the shift lever and it executes a perfect, clutch-dump launch every time. In this mode it also upshifts automatically through the first five gears.

One caveat: M DCT won’t allow multiple, successive launches in this manner. During our runs, it required three- to five-mile cool-down runs before allowing another attempt.

But Is it Quicker?

After scouring the test results for some useful conclusion, the answer is “not really.” The M DCT car hit 60 mph in 4.3 seconds, cleared the quarter-mile in 12.7 at 113 mph, and achieved 150 mph in 26 seconds flat. Compare that to the six-speed manual’s numbers of 4.3, 12.8 at 113, and 24.3, respectively. If you zoom in even closer and look at each 10-mph increment, the two cars tradeoff which one is quicker until 120 mph when the manual starts pulling away.

Still No Replacement for the Manual

The M DCT gearbox is no doubt a technical marvel, but we don’t yet prefer it to a traditional manual.

First off, the throttle response from a standstill is annoyingly lazy. Most times we found ourselves pushing the pedal about halfway down just to get a reasonable response. When attempting to merge into busy traffic, we often used so much pedal as to hit the kickdown switch on the floorboard to get the M3 moving. And then once the clutch finally engages, you get too much acceleration and often, wheelspin. This slow clutch engagement is disconcerting and we all agree that it’s far quicker and more predictable to get a swift, predictable step-off in the manual version.

Second, when accelerating hard, there’s a fair amount of lag between the time you pull the shift paddle and when it actually upshifts. On an aggressive shift from first to second, you have to shift around 7200 rpm—nearly 1000 rpm early—to get it to change gears before the engine hits the 8400-rpm limiter. We never had this issue with SMG in the M5 and M6, and after hitting the limiter multiple times, we yearned for the manual. And when it finally does shift, it often slams into gear so violently as to upset the car.

We found the downshifts to be quicker and more acceptable, although wide-open-throttle, two-lane passing maneuvers at 55–60 mph (a seven-to-two downshift) were a bit slower than we would have liked as well.

However, the taller seventh gear does allow the engine to run about 200 rpm lower than sixth gear in the manual, which could marginally improve real-world highway fuel-economy numbers. In Europe, the double-clutch M3 gets slightly better fuel-economy figures but U.S. EPA ratings remain at 14 mpg city, 20 mpg highway for either transmission. However, automatics generally get worse fuel economy, so parity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We saw 20–21 mpg on a relatively flat, couple-hour highway slog.

For sure, the automatic mode—other than the lazy clutch engagement on step-off—is much improved over the SMG and now perfectly acceptable. Keep it in one of the less aggressive settings and the shifts are so smooth you might miss them unless you’re paying close attention. And, unfortunately, there’s a strong demand for automatics in high-performance sports cars. But—other than the launch control feature—we think it’s far easier and more satisfying to exploit the M3’s excellent dynamics with a traditional manual, which was not necessarily what we expected.

EHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 4-passenger, 2-door coupe

PRICE AS TESTED: $69,425 (base price: $61,325)

ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 32-valve V-8, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 244 cu in, 3999cc
Power (SAE net): 414 bhp @ 8300 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 295 lb-ft @ 3900 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 7-speed manual with automated shifting and clutch

Wheelbase: 108.7 in Length: 181.8 in Width: 71.0 in Height: 55.8 in Curb weight: 3630 lb

Zero to 60 mph: 4.3 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 9.9 sec
Zero to 150 mph: 26.0 sec
Street start, 5–60 mph: 4.9 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 12.7 sec @ 113 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 161 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 147 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.96 g

EPA city/highway driving: 14/20 mpg

The Chismillionaire sedan - Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed

By Ron Kiino

Since its introduction as a 2006 model, the Bentley Continental Flying Spur has delighted the well-heeled with immense performance, supreme refinement, and seemingly boundless customization. Naturally, for 2009, Bentley has done to the Flying Spur what any rational ultraluxury brand would do-given it more performance, more refinement, more customization, and, at $180,395, more bottom line.

That sum represents the standard Flying Spur, which enters '09 with a new front fascia and rear bumper, a retuned suspension, a new adaptive cruise-control system, acoustic side and rear glass, and trilaminate undertray and wheel-arch liners, the last two combining to achieve a 5 db reduction in interior noise. Inside, the Flying Spur now offers a rear bench seat with electrically adjustable outboard seats and a $6900 Naim audio system with 15 speakers and an 1100-watt amplifier.

Still spurring the all-wheel-drive Spur is a 6.0L twin-turbo W-12 good for 552 hp and 479 lb-ft. Bentley estimates 0 to 60 in 4.9 sec and a top speed of 195 mph. Want more speed? Then go for the new $204,795 Speed, whose dark-tinted front grilles, wider tail pipes, and split-spoke 20-in. alloys distinguish it from its gentler sibling.

Essentially a four-door version of the Continental GT Speed that made its debut last year, the CFS Speed gets a more potent version of the W-12 that, due to reduction in internal losses, produces 600 hp and 553 lb-ft, all of which means 0 to 60 in only 4.5 sec and a top speed of 200 mph. To complement its extra oomph, the Speed sits 0.4 in. lower than the standard CFS, uses stiffer springs and dampers, larger anti-roll bars, an upgraded Bosch 8.1 stability-control system with Dynamic mode, and the aforementioned dubs, which frame optional $16,500 carbon ceramic brakes. Those snazzy stoppers save roughly 22 lb per wheel and boast monstrous 16.5-in. front discs that could easily serve a pair of Thanksgiving turkeys. Further, the Speed sports a front subframe bolted directly to the frame (versus a rubber-mounted one for the standard car) that, with help from a retuned Servotronic steering system and stiffer rear bushings, delivers quicker, sharper turn-in and better sense of the road through the new three-spoke steering wheel. The ride is still more of a glide, but it's noticeably firmer and better suited for taming a twisty road.

After learning the price of the Speed, a friend described it as a "total waste of money." Then we went for a spin. And then another. He smiled and laughed in utter amazement. Owners, no doubt, will smile and laugh all the way to 200 mph.

2009 F150 delayed due to lack of demand

DEARBORN, Michigan — Ford Motor said Friday it will delay by two months the introduction of the redesigned 2009 Ford F-150, because an industry-wide fall-off in demand for full-size pickups means dealers likely will take longer to sell down inventories of the current 2008 model.

Ford also confirmed plans to replace the current Focus compact in North America with a new European-designed model in late 2010. The second-generation European Focus, known internally as C346, will be a truly global project, with production sourced in Germany, Spain, Russia, China, India and Argentina, among other locations. Production for North America will likely be sourced from Mexico, according to suppliers familiar with Ford's plans.

Ford confirmed the next-generation Focus "will be common with Europe, South America and Asia Pacific." It said the 2011 Focus will achieve "excellent fuel economy...through new highly efficient direct-injection engine technology and a new advanced six-speed transmission."

The current U.S. Focus, which carries the internal code C170, dates to early 1999. It received a substantial face-lift for model year 2008, but its basic underpinnings were designed and engineered more than 10 years ago.

The new European-designed Fiesta subcompact, another global Ford vehicle, is slated to go into production in Mexico in early 2010. Ford has been displaying versions of the car at auto shows around the world.

While the U.S. launch of these new small cars is still 20-30 months away, Ford is taking some immediate — and sometimes drastic — steps to slash production of large trucks, SUVs and sedans, while scrambling to increase production of smaller vehicles.

The company on Friday said it will make substantial cuts in North American production in the third and fourth quarters, most of which involves assembly of larger vehicles.

It said production of the redesigned 2009 F-150 will begin in August in Kansas City and in September in Dearborn, about two months later than originally scheduled. SUV and heavy-duty truck plants in Michigan and Kentucky will get drastic cutbacks, as will a plant in Chicago that makes the full-size Taurus and Sable sedans, as well as the new 2009 Lincoln MKS.

Regarding the changes, Ford CEO Alan Mulally observed: "We view the move to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles as permanent, and we are responding to customer demand. In the near term, we are adjusting production to the actual demand — increasing small cars and crossovers and reducing large trucks and SUVs. For the long term, we are moving fast to introduce more small cars, crossovers and fuel-efficient powertrains — including more hybrids — and we will adjust our manufacturing facilities to match our updated product lineup."

What this means to you: As old as it is, Ford's U.S. Focus is attracting many more customers this year, in large measure because it is one of the most fuel-efficient models in the company's North American portfolio. — Paul Lienert, Correspondent

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